Thursday, April 25, 2013

Ebert Thoughts ‘13—Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh (1987) ****

NR, 105 min.
Director: Paul Cox
Writer: Vincent van Gogh
Narrator: John Hurt

Australian director Paul Cox was one of Roger Ebert’s favorite directors. Four of his movies have been featured at Ebertfest and he’s been a guest five times, once for a screening of “On Borrowed Time”, a documentary about him. This year he came with one of his documentaries, the very unique “Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh”.

I think Ebert felt Cox was a good man. That alone made his films fascinating to Ebert. But, the subjects of his films were also always good people. In “Innocence”, two good people rekindle a romance that was interrupted by decades of separate lives. In “Man of Flowers” a man takes the time to enjoy the things he finds good in life. And in “A Woman’s Tale”, unseen by me, a cancer victim lives the final days of her life in a self-portrait by the lead actress who herself was dying of cancer. In this documentary, we learn about the life of famed painter Vincent van Gogh in his own words. Narrated in an amazing voice over performance by John Hurt, every word in the movie was taken from Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo.

We listen to the inspiration of many of his most famous paintings. We hear his attempts to find purpose in life through his study of theology. We hear the early signs of his severe depression. We learn of his poverty first hand and of his efforts to do right by a woman who carried a child that wasn’t even his. This was a man who desperately wanted to do good deeds for the world, a task made harder by the daily demons he fought from his mental illness. His art is probably the best example of his need to be good, and Cox’s film is filled with the rich tones of his paintings and beautiful photographic recreations of the scenes depicted in the actual works.

I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a film that captured the essence of an artist in the way Cox does here. I’ve never felt I really knew a person from seeing a documentary about them in the intimate way this film lets us know Van Gogh. In doing so, the movie highlights what a tragic loss Van Gogh’s suicide was. Perhaps Van Gogh’s many self-portraits were where Cox found his inspiration for this film. Van Gogh was a man searching for himself. Cox exposes the great value in such a search.

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